Chapter 7

Greasy Peel

1995

Lettuce, mayonnaise, beetroot, meat patty, onion, tomato, gherkin, cheese – the basic hamburger ingredients chant is still in my head. Add an egg or pineapple ring here, substitute a meat patty with a piece of deep fried fish there, and you have an egg burger, Hawaiian burger or fish burger.

My first tax-deductible part time job was at a fish and chip shop. I was fifteen years old. After the three 5 to 9pm shifts, my greasy hair stuck to my greasy face and my clothes and skin smelt like a squid ring. Although I had eaten nothing, I breathed that fish and chip shop smell.

I worked with the owner Brendan, at his fish and chip shop located in Barrie, in one of Halstead’s ghettos.

Ghetto by Halstead standards is not exactly street crime and drive-by shootings, a New Zealand ghetto is that mix of unemployed people collecting a government benefit or earning minimum wage in low income service-level and physical jobs, like factory work. Add violence, alcohol and no education – the usual poverty and disenfranchised bedfellows – and you have Barrie. A suburb of rental houses and shops with garage doors pulled down after dark.

The fish and chip shop was the last on a block shared with a second-hand charity shop and a dairy; it was narrow with an old-fashioned counter as wide as the shop and a metre-wide hinged section which lifted to allow entry to behind the counter.

Because this was my first tax-deductible job, I had to get an Inland Revenue Department number, and this excited me; my new job was an opportunity to earn more money than I ever had.

To get an IRD number, I had to visit the Inland Revenue Department in Halstead city.

Halstead’s population was approximately seventy six thousand and it was the eighth largest city in New Zealand. New Zealand’s total population was four million.

My parents considered Halstead city the bustle and a major hassle.

“There are never any car parks. Your father will have to drive around the block,” Mum complained every time we went into town, frustrated before we started the twenty-minute drive after leaving the house unlocked. “What’s the point?” Mum would ask with a grin and mild rebellion about locking the house. And it was true.

Had someone entered the orchard property after pulling up the driveway, its perimeter encased by tall trees blocking all views from the road, no neighbours, not anyone, would have seen a thing. And because my parents were not social, had they been murdered on the property, but for their children, they would have lain undiscovered for weeks.

At the Inland Revenue Department, Mum and I waited in line. I looked around. No one in the line smiled and nothing about the space was interesting; there were no posters and no colour. People got an IRD number so they could work and earn money to buy whatever they wanted but these people were cheerless. I looked at the staff behind the bank-like counter: they weren’t smiling either.

Mum helped me complete the necessary forms wearing an expression I now call The Worker. It’s a frown with steady eyes expressing strain from being restricted by something an individual cannot change.
“You can pay tax now,” Mum announced, smiling.

I looked up from the birth date I penned on the form. “Tax?” I asked, knowing because she was smiling there was a catch.

“Yes, you can give all your money to the government,” she stated.

I paused.

“For things like roads and hospitals,” she continued.

I considered this and it sounded fine. “Okay. How much do I pay?”

“It depends on how much you earn, but maybe twenty cents in every dollar.”

“Twenty cents in every dollar?” I was appalled. That was a lot of money.

Mum gave her I-told-you-so smile which morphed into The Worker. I looked around at other faces in repose. Faces of The Worker.

At the fish and chip shop, Brendan deep fried the fish and chips and whatever else customers wanted coated in batter and boiled in grease to taste like everything else. I served the customers, took phone orders and cooked burgers.

Before the evening’s action kicked off, I sliced potatoes for potato fritters, prepared burger ingredients by washing lettuce and slicing tomatoes and “did” the sausages.

By “did” the sausages, I mean taking a bag of fifty precooked budget frozen sausages, plunging them into a sink of hot water to defrost, then removing their skins as if peeling a used condom off a penis.

Luckily Brendan was a nice guy and harmless and didn’t stand around watching me “do” the sausages. He was one of those tall, thin, excessively chatty, hyperactive and “life according to” guys who give sermons on the state of the world and how it would be improved by a few simple things if only he were king for a day. Brendan was about forty years old and I remember drove a black Honda CRX which, as an impressionable fifteen-year-old, seemed pretty cool. Coolness aside, I could not escape the self-conscious feeling removing sausage skins from approximately fifty sausages as Brendan heated up the deep fat fryer.

At the end of each shift, stinking like grease and humiliation because I was ashamed to work at a fish and chip shop in Barrie and my friends laughed at me, and would have laughed harder had I detailed them on doing the sausages, I helped Brendan clean up. I folded and jammed empty stinky fish boxes into rubbish bins behind the shops, poured buckets of caustic hot water and chemicals onto the floor to melt and scrub the accumulated grease that never lifted, all while the deep fat fryer cooled. I would think how I was grateful to have escaped the ravages of teenage acne, for my face would have been a grease sponge.

After work, Mum, dedicated to driving us children everywhere as always and trying to teach us the right things like the responsibility of a part time job and working for money, would wait outside in the car with the doors locked.

We would drive home in silence. I could not wait to get in the shower and wash away the grease and shame.

“Lettuce, mayonnaise, beetroot, meat patty, onion, tomato, gherkin, cheese.”

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